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Spring 2011 Super-Sized Success

Managing the specialty leasing program at one of the biggest malls in the world takes a lot of can-do attitude. And Lisa Taylor, Mall of America’s specialty leasing manager, has loads of it.

The specialty leasing program at Mall of America in Bloomington, MN, is much like everything else at the 4.2-million-square-foot megamall—it’s big.

The Mall of America program is easily double, or even triple, the size of the specialty leasing programs at most enclosed malls. The program includes 70 carts, approximately 12 kiosks and 25 inline locations and 15 vending locations. Given the size, and the steady demand from specialty tenants, it’s no wonder that the program keeps specialty leasing manager, Lisa Taylor, on her toes.

Managing a unique program

With more than 25 years of experience working in shopping center management, the last 15 of which have been focused on specialty leasing, Taylor is just the right person for the job.

She started out in an office administrator position at another Twin Cities shopping center, Maplewood Mall, in the mid-1980s. She later served as assistant to the mall manager. Both jobs honed her skills in tenant services and interfacing with mall owners.

When Maplewood Mall launched its specialty leasing program in 1996, Taylor got the nod to head the program. She started out from scratch, purchasing carts, placing them throughout the mall, and leasing them. After getting the specialty leasing program up and running, she was handed a second assignment in 2000—overseeing the specialty leasing program at Miller Hill Mall in Duluth, MN.

Taylor moved to Mall of America as a specialty leasing representative in 2004. The specialty leasing program at the mall was already in place by then and Taylor not only brought years of experience—she even brought a few tenants with her. “I learned a lot by starting that (Maplewood Mall) program and growing it over time. Then when I came here I was prepared for the next level because it is a much bigger program,” Taylor says. Two years after she started at Mall of America, in 2006, Taylor was promoted to her current position as specialty leasing manager.

Vibrant program

At the mall, kiosks and inline spaces typically remain fully occupied year-round, and there is currently a wait list of about 20 tenants for the coveted inline spaces. “Being in the program at Mall of America, there are a lot of expectations and standards, and inlines are at the forefront of that,” Taylor says. The inline stores in particular have a very professional, permanent look to them. Most visitors to the mall don’t notice the difference between a temporary and a more permanent store, she adds.

The smaller cart units also experience a strong demand from tenants hoping to get their foot in the door at the busy mall, which sees some 40 million visitors each year and hosts 400 special events ranging from celebrity book signings to charity fundraisers.

Carts are fully occupied about 80 percent of the year. “There are only two months that we might lose five or six carts, but other than that the kiosks and inline spaces are generally full year-round,” Taylor says. It helps the specialty leasing program that the mall sees three different peak seasons, Taylor adds. After a brief lull in January and February, the mall enjoys peak periods during spring and summer breaks, in addition to the Christmas shopping season.

Demographic differentiation

In addition to its size, another dynamic that differentiates the Mall of America program from other shopping centers is its customer demographic. “Because we have 40 percent tourists, it does open the door to some unique retail uses that actually look for tourist traffic,” Taylor says.

For example, the high tourism volume has attracted specialty tenants such as Abracadabra, which moved into an inline space last fall. The interactive store does magic demonstrations and teaches shoppers how to perform tricks. The store, which relocated to Mall of America from San Antonio, TX, appeals to the entertainment and tourist retail environment that the mall has. Taylor reports that the store is doing “wonderfully.”

Remodeling underway

Although managing more than 100 specialty tenants is a big job in its own right, Taylor is also in the midst of coordinating new cart fixtures for a major remodeling project. The mall is undergoing a multi-million dollar, phased renovation.

Part of that remodeling includes designing and manufacturing new carts and kiosks. The new carts will fit the remodeled mall in terms of looks and theme; existing carts are about 10 years old so they were due for an upgrade.

The new units are being re-designed to blend with the overall design of the wing where they are located. For example, the new units for the south avenue were designed to complement the upscale design, while the east avenue features an urban loft theme. As each avenue is designed by an architect, Taylor collaborates with the mall designers and cart manufacturer to create a new look for the carts and kiosks that fits with that new interior. “We want the new fixtures to be functional, but unique,” she says.

The south avenue of the mall is the first of the four sections to be complete. The new carts and kiosks for the south avenue arrived in March.

Taylor is in the process of working with project architects to design new carts and kiosks for the east wing with the west and north avenues to follow. “That is my next three-year project to oversee the design and implementation of those units,” Taylor says.

Cultivating relationships

Taylor and her team work to accommodate potential tenants, as well as keep the merchandising mix fresh with new concepts. That being said, the mall also has concepts, and even specific specialty tenants, that have been with the mall since day one. For example, City Shirts, a T-shirt cart, has been with the mall since it opened in 1992. “So there is a lot of longevity to the program,” Taylor says. City Shirts sells a variety of shirts with different graphics—pictures, funny sayings, rock bands and more.

Despite the mall’s track record of success with its specialty leasing program, it is not something that the mall—or Taylor—takes for granted. “We are constantly trying to make sure that carts and kiosks are in the most viable location for their success and ours,” she says.

Taylor admits that the mall does have high standards in terms of the aesthetic, operations and merchandising mix. But she also emphasizes how critical it is to cultivate relationships that are built on mutual respect.

“It is important to be honest and up front with tenants,” she says. Taylor makes it a practice to explain mall standards and expectations from the start, and then follow up with tenants on a monthly basis to make sure they are happy and have everything they need to be successful. “Mall of America has high standards, but that doesn’t mean that we are unreasonable,” Taylor says. “We understand that these businesses are often the livelihood for these people.”

Beth Mattson-Teig

Beth Mattson-Teig is a freelance business writer based in Minneapolis, Minn. She specializes in covering the national commercial real estate industry.

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